Sunday, July 12, 2015

The British Library

British Library, London
From the outside, the structure of the British Library resembles a ship, and indeed that was the aim of the architect in rendering a national library. Much like a ship, the British Library promises passage, through time and through knowledge, to anyone with the proper ID, address, and reason for study. 

The British Library is the largest public building in the United Kingdom, and took 36 years to complete. Prior to the construction of their current residence, the library was spread throughout 19 buildings, with a reading room and primary holdings at the British Museum. 

As far as collections go, the British Library collects and keeps everything published in the United Kingdom. They have an estimated 200 billion items and acquire around 3 million items each year. These items are stored mostly underground in four basement levels beneath the library. The basements go down 25 meters, which qualify as the largest hole in the U.K. While we did not tour the underground storage facilities, I have no doubt they are impressive, and impressively built, considering the existing Tube lines running under the British Library. 

Despite its appearance, the British Library was never completed to the architect's final specifications. In fact, only the first phase of building was finished, leaving the library with 1000 fewer reader's desks and a smaller conservation center. 

The Kings Library, British Library, London
The gem, and the most recognizable trait of the British Library aesthetic is the King's Library. This free-standing six story tower holds 100,000 volumes, the manuscripts gifted by King George III at the library's inception. The King's only stipulation was that the books would always be held on shelves people could see. The tower is lit sparingly with LEDs, and is placed strategically to keep direct sunlight from ever shining on the manuscripts within. Within the King's Library, the stacks are moveable to make retrieval easier. 

The British Library hosts 11 reading rooms, one for each subject area, and all written languages are represented  in the collections. Any book can be called up for study, provided the researcher has significant reason in some cases. The only book restricted from study is the Klencke Atlas, a collection of maps presented to the English monarchy as a gift. The book is large enough to require three casters, and was possibly used as a coffee table at one time--evidenced by what looks like a coffee ring on the cover. 

The retrieval system at the British Library involves a mile of conveyor tracks. All items are scanned, placed in boxes, and sent to the appropriate room. No rare books or manuscripts are transported this way, but the British Library processes an average of 2500 to 3000 boxes a day. 

The classification system used is in-house, and esoteric for older volumes. Those volumes held during the period the library was housed in the British Museum, and various other places, still carry the location reference marks as a call number. This means some marks are rather bizarre. 

All in all, the British Library is much as I expected it to be: huge and packed with cultural treasures. Selections from the collections are displayed in the Treasures room, but I suspect that is only the barest tip of the iceberg when it comes to the entire holdings. Our tour guide gave us an insight to some of the stranger things found in the collections, like a lock of Shelley's hair and a petri dish from Alexander Fleming, which supposedly contains a culture of penicillin. 

The British Library holds more than one can reasonably imagine, which is the reason I find it most enchanting. 

British Library gate, London
Wikipedia Commons
Visit the British Library online to see virtual books, online exhibitions, and create a personal gallery!

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